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Inquisitorial Telephonic Hearing to Screen Civil Rights Case Deemed Unlawful

In reversing an Illinois federal district court’s dismissal of a civilly committed sex offender’s civil rights action, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals did not mince words when condemning the lower court’s use of a merit review proceeding as an inquisitorial hearing.

Willie Henderson is confined in the Rushville Treatment and Detention Facility pursuant to Illinois’ Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act. He worked in the facility’s dietary services department. Henderson alleged in a civil rights complaint that he was fired from that position in retaliation for the “many lawsuits” he had filed against facility staff. He claimed he lost his job due to trumped up disciplinary charges.

The Seventh Circuit noted the complaint was “bare bones.” In screening the suit under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), the district court had telephonically interviewed Henderson. Its dismissal order was captioned “MERIT REVIEW AND CASE MANAGEMENT ORDER,” and found that Henderson failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court allowed him to amend but dismissed his amended complaint on the same basis.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held on October 5, 2015 that the district court’s use of the in camera inquisitorial proceeding that it termed a merit review hearing was “unlawful.” In Williams v. Wahner, 731 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2013), the Court of Appeals had “rejected the use of ex parte telephonic interrogation as a method of screening complaints to determine whether they state a claim.”

The screening provision of § 1915(e)(2) does not “contemplate[ ] an oral examination of a party by the judge designed to elicit answers that will enable the judge to resolve contestable factual issues,” the Seventh Circuit held. It was evident the district court had delved into the facts of Henderson’s claim during the inquisitorial hearing, yet failed to keep any record of that proceeding even though it used facts from the hearing to support its order of dismissal.

The appellate court noted that some prisoners “may be illiterate in English, or they may simply be such poor writers that they can’t convey their thoughts other than orally.” In such cases, an alternative may be to appoint “counsel for the limited purpose of helping the prisoner express his complaint intelligibly.”

The Court of Appeals added the district court was “not to be criticized for giving the plaintiff, unrepresented by counsel and unschooled in legal procedure, an opportunity to amplify his complaint orally, which might provide guidance for the next steps in the lawsuit.”

The problem was there was no record of the telephonic hearing for meaningful appellate review. When such hearings occur, courts may “interview a pro se detainee plaintiff in order to determine not whether the plaintiff’s case is meritorious, but simply what the case is.”

The Seventh Circuit found Henderson’s complaint alleged a claim of retaliation for filing lawsuits; the district court’s order was reversed and remanded. The case remains pending on remand, with the district court denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on September 6, 2016. See: Henderson v. Wilcoxen, 802 F.3d 930 (7th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Henderson v. Wilcoxen